'Mafioso' allegations fuel Countdown boycott call

HAMISH RUTHERFORD, JENNA LYNCH AND ELTON SMALLMAN
Last updated 05:00 14/02/2014

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The Commerce Commission is investigating the basis of alleged anti-competitive behaviour by the Countdown supermarket chain.

But the supermarket giant insists it has nothing to hide.

On Wednesday, Labour MP Shane Jones used parliamentary privilege to accuse the Australian-owned company of "mafioso" tactics, claiming suppliers were being ordered to hand over cash to cover Countdown's past losses or risk permanent exclusion.

The Food and Grocery Council confirmed it had received reports of requests for retrospective payments from its members.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that while the allegations were unsubstantiated, he believed an inquiry might be a good idea.

Shoppers spoken to by the Waikato Times, during a 15-minute visit to New World Rototuna last night, said they would think twice about spending their money with Countdown if the allegations were proven - with some saying they had already boycotted the major supermarket chain.

Five shoppers said they would look at a boycott while three more would question shopping there.

Several said it did not affect them as they only shopped at New World, or they had not heard of the allegations.

Just one person said they would "probably still go there".

Derek Devoy said he had made the choice to shop at New World last night following Mr Jones' accusations.

"We came here out of choice.

"We won't be going back there.

"Stuff them," he said.

Jody Orbon lives in Rototuna and said he shopped at Countdown "on the odd occasion" but "absolutely" would not go there any more if they were found to be guilty of bullying tactics.

Mr Orbon preferred shopping at New World anyway as it was a locally owned and operated store.

His view was shared by a man who wished to remain anonymous.

He stressed he was not a disgruntled shopper but he did not like Countdown.

"I think they're a pack of rogues," he said.

And Rob Downing said he was prepared to boycott Countdown, though it was unlikely to affect him.

"I don't deal with Countdown because I don't like them anyway but I'd definitely join any boycott."

But many shoppers spoken to were unaware of the saga.

Jo Smyth said she had not heard much about the drama but would "probably think twice" about shopping with Countdown.

"I don't like that attitude," she said.

And Lauralee Hughes said although she had not read or seen anything about the chain's alleged activity, it was unlikely to affect her.

"It's still a price thing. If they've got something cheaper, I'd still probably go there.

Countdown has denied the claims, stating it does not make demands for retrospective payments.

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Managing director Dave Chambers said he called in his senior colleagues on Wednesday to discuss the allegations, to ensure none was making the demands without his knowledge, before categorically denying them.

"We've got nothing to hide and we believe nothing to fear as well," he said.

While negotiations with the company's 1200 suppliers were at times "robust", the company did not seek additional payments after a deal was made, or to renegotiate deals, he said .

"If we buy 10,000 cans of baked beans from Watties and we only sell 8000, we're left with 2000. That's our problem . . . We have a deal and we stick to a deal," Mr Chambers said.

"Discussions with suppliers happen every single day. Discussions can be robust but they're professional and at the end of the day we believe they're transparent and fair."

Countdown had already defended itself this week, as consumers reacted to news that its owners, Woolworths, were removing New Zealand products from supermarket shelves across the Tasman.

Before the Times went to print, the number of people who had "liked" a Facebook page calling for a boycott of Countdown was more than 6000.

Mr Chambers said he found the response of some of its customers "distressing" but it was too soon to tell if sales were being affected.

- Waikato Times

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